Monday, October 20, 2008

Music Review: Hot Streets by Chicago

Now what?

That must have been the thoughts of the members of the band Chicago after fellow founding member Terry Kath’s untimely death in January 1978. The previous year, they had released their eleventh album and conducted yet another successful tour. Their last show—the last time Kath performed in public—was 1 December 1977 and they had already decided to move in a different direction by parting ways with James William Guercio, their producer and manager since 1969. The year 1978 was going to be a time of change and transition anyway. Soon after Kath’s death and funeral, the band had to wonder if they should move on as a band or call it quits.

Before they could even think of recording anything, they needed a new guitarist. The remaining members of Chicago—Robert Lamm, Peter Cetera, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, Walt Parazaider, Danny Serephine—interviewed numerous guitarist. The true list has never been revealed so it’s a wonderful mystery thinking about who jammed with the band during their try-outs. One of the last guys to play was twenty-seven-year-old Donnie Dacus from Texas. At that point, his most recent work was with Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) and he went into his audition and decided to play with abandon. According to various sources, the guys were impressed that Dacus didn’t seemed cowed and just played his heart out in his own style. The Texan landed the job. And Chicago lived another day.

After hiring a new guitarist, Chicago needed a new producer. Phil Ramone, already legendary by 1978, had mixed a few of Chicago’s albums and he signed on as co-producer. The other listed producer was “Chicago.” Now, self-producing a album can have mixed results. If an artist has one vision, the results can prove excellent. Without a cohesive musical vision, the results can leave something to be desired. The ten songs that ended up being Chicago’s twelfth album lands somewhere in between. That’s to be expected with so much riding on it and the questions that would inevitably arise. How would Chicago sound without Terry Kath, the musical soul of the band since the early days? How would Chicago cope with the changing musical landscape of 1978, the year after “Saturday Night Fever” and the rise of disco, not to mention punk rock? How would the new guitarist blend in with the now-traditional Chicago sound?

The first track of the new album, “Alive Again,” was the answer. A bold, brash opener, complete with a disco-ish guitar riff, “Alive Again” told the world that Chicago was not dead. Pankow’s lyrics spoke of romantic love but you could pretty much read the band’s love of Kath in between the lines.
Yesterday I would not have believed
That tomorrow the sun would shine
Then one day you came into my life
I am alive again I am alive again
Heck, you could even account for the newfound enthusiasm the band had on stage with Dacus in those lyrics as well.

If the opening track on their first album, “Introduction,” is all you needed to know about Chicago circa 1969, then “Alive Again” is all you need to know about Chicago post-Kath. Peter Cetera sings the tune and this is the beginning of his ascendancy. The band accommodates and incorporates a newer musical sound within the context of the band (read: disco; although not as much as Chicago 13). The guitar solo by Dacus, while good and appropriate for the song, is less inventive than previous solos by Kath. Dacus’s vocal range is not Kath’s deeper baritone and the band’s vocal sound collectively rose in pitch without Kath and with Dacus.

And then there's the horns. Yes, they are there but only in a support role. “Alive Again,” in all of it’s three-minute, radio-friendly glory left little room for any extended horn breaks. To be fair, many of Chicago’s radio hits featured few horns breaks (“Just You n Me” is the most famous exception) but the horns were always, there, as the “fourth voice,” in many Chicago hits. (See how the horns interact with the vocals on “Saturday in the Park” as a good example.)

This diminished capacity of the horns on this new Chicago record goes on for most of the ten songs. “The Greatest Love on Earth” is Cetera’s attempt to write “If You Leave Me Now” Part III (after Chicago XI’s “Baby, What a Big Surprise;' here's my take on that album.). It’s a pretty song but you know that the band is capable of so much more. It’s also another indicator of the change in the sound of horns. Most Chicago songs feature a horn sound that is mellow, balanced by Pankow’s trombone, giving the sound a rich, deep timbre. With “The Greatest Love on Earth,” the trombone is there, but the mix reduces its sound. The result is a higher pitched sound, like Ramone turned the treble too high and the bass too low.

“Little Miss Lovin’” is Chicago’s answer to KISS’ “Christeen Sixteen.” It’s a rocking paean to teenage lust that features the Bee Gees on background vocals. Makes you wonder what Cetera was thinking when he wrote this tune. Another Dacus guitar solo and this one’s better.

“Hot Streets” is the fourth track as has the distinction of being a title track. For eleven albums, the only title was a number (other than the Carnegie Hall album). Chicago decided to title their twelfth album and they chose the most Chicago-sounding song on the album. “Hot Streets” is a Lamm-penned tune that evokes the spirit and feel of 1978 while still remembering where Chicago’s sound originated. The horns are back to being the other voice throughout the song. The high-hat is definitely of the late 70s and is a good example of how Chicago incorporates other trends into their own sound. And, shock of shocks, there is a horn solo. This time, it’s Parazaider’s flute blowing a fantastic, jazzy solo that evokes his great solo from Chicago II’s “It Better End Soon” without all the early 70s experimentation. The solo segues into an honest-to-goodness horn break. The timbre of the horns is still high but the break definitely hearkens back to the way the horns were used early on. “Hot Streets” ends with an extended guitar solo by Dacus that, sonically, is the sequel to Terry Kath’s last recorded solo (XI’s “This Time”). It’s a compositional solo, with refrains and a melodic line that runs to the end of the song. If, in 1978, any fan was listening to the new album wondering where the old Chicago was, the song “Hot Streets” put their worries to rest.

Dacus’s vocal debut, “Take a Chance” rounds out side one. It’s a pleasant song, pretty good really. Again the horns are the fourth voice, with a secondary melody behind Dacus’s singing. The guitar solos are wonderful, trading leads with the horns. These last two tracks of side one can be considered the best of the old and new Chicago.

Side two is opens with “Gone Long Gone,” a standard Top 40-type song of the post-Kath era: Cetera sung (including his own backing vocals) and hornless. It’s nice, yet simple. “Ain’t it Time” is Dacus’s second lead vocal. Decent song just nothing to write home about. One thing you can tell is how well Cetera and Dacus sound together. They are, in a sense, Bee Gee-sounding without all the high screeching. Lamm’s “Love Was New” is a pleasant, wistful look back at new romance. “No Tell Lover” is another ballad and probably the best one on the album. Cetera sings it and it’s the foremost example of how well Dacus and Cetera sound together. It’s got a horn break but it’s pretty simple. The album ends with the somewhat experimental sound of “Show Me the Way.” Synthesized strings open the song and poke their heads out during verses. Chicago had used strings before but mostly they were real players with real instruments. I can certainly see why they put this song at the end. It’s a good tune, written by drummer Serephine and sung by Lamm. It’s just one of odder-sounding cuts in Chicago’s repertoire. The ending fades out with a pseudo-Russian sounding chant “Marching into your heart” under the synthesizer.

The album “Hot Streets” was released to the world thirty years ago this month and the band hit the road. Regardless of what listeners thought of the album, the band’s stage show rocked. Dacus brought a new enthusiasm to the show. He wasn’t Kath and didn’t play like him. He had long, blond hair, he moved and gyrated like, well, a rock star. On older cuts, he interpreted the solos his own way. In February 1978, Van Halen’s first album hit the world and a whole new style of guitar playing emerged. Dacus played like Van Halen. Check out his take on Chicago’s most famous guitar-driven song, “25 or 6 to 4.” It was probably a shock to the crowd’s who loved Kath’s playing. Ironically, the very enthusiasm that Dacus showed in 1978—and that another guitarist, Dawayne Bailey, showed in the late 1980s—would eventually get him fired from the band two years later after making one more album.

No one would have blamed Chicago if they hung it up after Terry Kath’s death. You can make the case—and some members have—that the true Chicago died in 1978. (I still think of the first eleven albums as Chicago: The Originals.) But they didn’t. They forged ahead and continued to make some fantastic and lasting music. And it started with the addition of Donnie Dacus and the ten cuts that make up the album “Hot Streets.”

Love it or hate it, this album is the key album in Chicago’s nearly forty-plus year history. Without “Hot Streets” you would not have the famous ballads of the 1980s, you would not have “Stone of Sisyphus,” and you would not have the Christmas CD. While their first album was one of the best opening statements in rock history and their second solidified what it meant to be a rock band with horns, “Hot Streets” demonstrated that Chicago could and would adapt to changes in personnel and musical trends. Unfortunately, when their record label cancelled their contract two years later, Chicago was again left with the same question they asked in early 1978: “Now what?” The good thing for us, looking back, we know the answer.


Chris said...

What a great review. I wrote one of Miles Davis's Doo-Bop over on my blog.

Great stuff!

Unknown said...

Scott, I enjoyed reading you well written review. Much of it is very insightful and informative. "Hot Streets" is a great album and a move by the band in a different (but correct) direction primarily because music was changing. The only part I disagree with (and this is JUST a matter of opinions) is where you write that "the true Chicago died in 1978" (i.e. after Kath's death RIP).

However, IMHO Lamm, Cetera & Pankow did more for Chicago then Kath ever did. I recently listened again to the complete CTA album. Most of Lamm's compositions are fresh, well written and both music/vocals sound great! These songs of course soon became Chicago's first string of hits. Kath's offerings "Introduction" & "Free Form Guitar" were probably amazing and very innovative back in 1969 but I personally couldn't wait for them to be over. Now hold on all you Kath fans, this is just MY opinion, so you Kath fans can just chill and continue to worship your Kath Guitar God forever.

I was first attracted to Chicago during the mid 70's because of their horns not from his guitar playing (Boston's 1976 debut album did that with it's distinct guitar sound like no other, thanks Tom Scholz)! Anyway, their horns (not guitars) are what set Chicago apart from most other rock bands. In 1978, Chicago would have been very foolish to "hang it up", especially with all the talent that still remained within the surviving 6 original members. (Also none of Kath's compositions ever became hits although he did sing lead on 5 hits written by fellow band members).

I like to call their first 11 albums, Classic Chicago (but this not a reference to Kath) They are Classic for 3 key reasons: Lamm's Compositions, Pankow's Horn Arrangements & Cetera's Lead Vocals. Lamm dominated the 70's by writing the majority of the band's hits, Pankow arranged their signature horn sound & Cetera sang lead on 65% of their hits. Remove any of these key members from the Chicago equation and solving for "x" would become much more difficult.

Unknown said...

We are all bless that this band continue Hot Streets show that.